Miriam Lord: O’Brien left, seething with anger. You sense the relief in the chamber

Sinn Féin TD garners little sympathy after revealing his brother is a recovering addict

There were angry exchanges during Leader's Questions on Thursday after Jonathan O’Brien said his brother had been 'forced to go back into a hostel where drug-taking happens in front of him'.

 

Here comes Maureen. For the worthy stuff. She looks out for the people who don’t usually get a look-in. Unless one of them inconveniently dies on a doorstep opposite Leinster House, or something like that.

She knows what she’s talking about, too.

Maureen O’Sullivan isn’t into point-scoring. She just does her bit for the community she represents in Dublin’s north inner city, carrying on from where the late Tony Gregory left off.

Sincere and well meaning, when O’Sullivan gets to her feet for the last round of Leaders’ Questions, it tends to spark a sincere and well-meaning rush to the doors by politicians and media.

The same tends to happen when an Opposition spokesperson – usually somebody like Mary Lou McDonald, or Clare Daly or Ruth Coppinger – broaches an issue which might be loosely categorised under the heading “Women’s Things.”

Most of the lads can’t get away quick enough.

It isn’t that people aren’t interested, but just that the subject matter signals the end of the Leaders’ Questions knockabout. Which can be a bit of a game.

So up stands Maureen, for she was in possession of the technical group chair for questions to the Tánaiste.

Before her Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen came up with some nice one-liners when tackling Joan Burton over the ongoing water charges controversy. Joan hit back with some wisecracks of her own.

Burton dismissed his concerns over the allegedly limited life span of water meters as nothing more than “a total ball of smoke”.

Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins instantly responded with a rejoinder worthy of Wilde himself: “The Tánaiste is a ball of smoke!”

Then Mary Lou McDonald squared up to the Tánaiste over the availability of social housing. They had their usual ding-dong across the floor, with Sinn Féin’s deputy leader taunting her Cabra neighbour over the Government’s promise to provide 5,384 housing units this year.

“Take it from me, deputy, we will be delivering on this commitment,” insisted the Tánaiste. Peter Mathews, for some strange reason, then decided to shout out the number 5,384 in Irish.

After listening to the explanation as to how that target would be achieved, Mary Lou concluded the Government hadn’t a chance of delivering it. And for good measure, she called Joan “a spoofer”.

Supportive bawling

The exchanges took place against a background of supportive bawling, sham squeals of indignation and by-the-book bickering ,and each side finished up feeling they came out on top.

On so to O’Sullivan. What she had to say concerned the Law of Unintended Consequences – the knock-on effect of the Government’s drive to get beds for people sleeping rough.

However, this has had terrible consequences for drug addicts in recovery.

In what O’Sullivan called “the reconfiguration” of hostel accommodation, individuals getting their lives together in a “clean” environment suddenly found themselves sharing with active drug-users.

“I take no pleasure in coming in here today and saying that what has happened has been disastrous.”

She added: “Because of that reconfiguration there is now widespread heroin use. There is dealing and chaotic behaviour. There are multiple relapses.”

People in recovery are told to stay away from people and places connected with drug use, but this isn’t possible now in certain hostels. People who have worked hard to get clean and stay drug-free should be given suitable accommodation, said O’Sullivan.

Few would argue with her. Putting active drug-users in a hostel, which one resident and recovering addict called “a rock of stability” until the accommodation was reconfigured, makes little sense.

The Tánaiste was very sympathetic. She spoke about what was being done by the Government to ease the homeless crisis. She told O’Sullivan that, while she wasn’t aware of the particular hostel she was referring to, she would investigate the matter immediately. She would also meet the TD in private to discuss the situation.

But Joan, as is her habit, went on at length about the situation. In her view, hostel accommodation should always just be a temporary measure. “The goal should be to find homes for people.”

The discussion was progressing in the usual manner. Problem raised and the proper noises made. Nobody was that bothered.

Except for Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien, who seemed particularly agitated when the Tánaiste talked of people finding homes.

Outrage

“You haven’t a clue,” shouted the Cork TD. “You haven’t a clue.” There was an edge to his intervention which went beyond the usual outrage.

The Tánaiste, perhaps prompted by O’Brien’s outburst, began another anecdote with “I was in Cork before Christmas . . . ” before telling O’Brien of the great work done by Simon for the homeless in his native city.

Oh no, there isn’t much you can tell Joan Burton about the issue. “I spent Monday last talking to probably 15 or 16 very fine persons, as good any day as the deputy or any of his colleagues who sit beside him,” she began, nodding over at the Sinn Féin ranks, “who have substance problems which they are battling to overcome . . . ”

O’Brien lost his rag. He didn’t shout, just raised his voice a little. “I have a brother who is homeless. He is a recovering heroin addict who can’t get rent accommodation because of the rent allowance.”

Burton seemed taken aback. We suspect she just heard his protests and not the substance of his final statement. “Don’t you dare lecture me!” he said.

Meanwhile, some of O’Brien’s Sinn Féin colleagues were looking sideways at him. Across the floor, an awkward silence descended on those who had been listening.

The TD had no time for Joan’s talk about long-term accommodation – it’s what his brother wants but “he has been forced to go back into a hostel where drug-taking happens in front of him”.

The debate ended noisily with the Tánaiste stressing “that the approach of getting a home for people and getting people substance-free is the correct approach”.

It’s a pity her Labour colleague Eric Byrne wasn’t so empathetic. He looked across at O’Brien and smugly inquired: “Why doesn’t his good family give him a home?”

O’Brien lost it: “Shut your mouth,” he cried. “Shut your mouth!”

Fine Gael’s Derek Keating was disgusted, but not with the insensitively and lack of understanding shown by Byrne. “It is completely out of order for Deputy O’Brien to tell another deputy to shut his mouth,” he huffed.

“What would you expect from Sinn Féin?” drawled Byrne, the very soul of compassion.

“He should withdraw the remark and apologise,” roared Keating.

Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn (who, it transpired, didn’t know about his colleague’s brother) called for some decorum.

O’Brien left the chamber, still seething with anger. You sense the relief rising in the chamber. They don’t like it when the real world intrudes. These sort of things don’t really happen to TDs.

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